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Expectations Modest As Cancun Climate Talks Open

Global warming is threatening the polar bear's icy habitat.

Global warming is threatening the polar bear's icy habitat.

World leaders have descended on the Mexican resort town of Cancun to hold nearly two weeks of discussions on how to combat global warming and mitigate its effects.

Day one featured opening speeches and the beginnings of an effort to erase memories of last year's near-catastrophic talks in Copenhagen. There, attendees hoped to agree on a binding resolution to curb greenhouse gas emissions, which are released from the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas.

Such gases are widely considered to be the main cause of rising world temperatures and have been linked to predictions of worsened flood, droughts, and storms in future years.

But delegates meeting in the Danish capital instead became bogged down in squabbling and were only able to produce a nonbinding accord at the last minute that didn't even have unanimous agreement.

Realistic Goals

Christiana Figures, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is hosting the Cancun talks, urged countries to reach a compromise this time.

"When the stakes are high and the issues are challenges, compromise is an act of wisdom that can unite different positions in creative ways," she said.

"Looking at what you have achieved over the past months, I am convinced that you can compromise to find your way to a concrete outcome in Cancun. That outcome needs to be both firm and dependable and have a dedicated follow-on process for future work," Figures added.

But expectations for the talks are decidedly more modest than they were in Copenhagen, and the array of problems that observers say sabotaged last year's talks remain.

They include a reluctance to pay for easing dependence on fossil fuels, failure to agree on greenhouse gas reduction targets, and a battle between industrialized and nonindustrialized nations over who should shoulder the brunt of the responsibility.

RFE/RL correspondent Komila Nabiyeva, who is covering the Cancun talks, said the mood of the conference is less ambitious than last year's.

"This year, most of the parties and most of the country delegates hope for the outcome to be a balanced package of decisions, or balanced package of agreements, on different types of measures to mitigate climate change. If I were to talk about the general mood of the conference and delegates, I would say that people are more realistic about the outcome," she said.

No Kyoto Successor Expected

Delegates hope to achieve the establishment of a so-called "Green Fund" that would help channel hundreds of billions of dollars of aid to countries most acutely affected by climate change, such as low-lying island nations.

Antonio Monteiro Lima, a delegate from the 43-nation Alliance of Small Island States, said member countries face "the end of history" if more is not done to counter rising temperatures and the associated rising sea levels.

Other areas in which the delegates may reach agreement include technology transfer between countries and averting carbon emissions due to deforestation.

But more ambitious goals, such as agreeing on a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2012, are not expected to materialize in Cancun.

The Kyoto Protocol, which mandates modest emissions reductions by richer nations, was itself diluted by the refusal of the United States to sign on.

The United States, now the world's second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, feared that the treaty would hurt its economy and objected to the exemption of countries like China, now the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Chinese Objections

U.S.-China disagreement over climate measures have long been seen as impeding stricter global controls on greenhouse gases, and the specter of that disagreement is lurking in Cancun as well.

Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. deputy special envoy for climate change, said on the opening day of the talks that success in Mexico depends on overcoming that deadlock.

"Our relationship with China is extremely important. We are the world's first- and second-largest greenhouse gas emitters; we are the world's first- and second-largest economies. We both have enormous resources [and] enormous capacities and complicated and complex domestic circumstances which drive the actions that we take. I think that a success here [in Cancun] will only emerge if we can both come to agreement," Pershing said.

Despite the apparent roadblocks to a breakthrough at Cancun, most in attendance agree that global warming is becoming increasingly dire.

A report released by European Environment Agency to coincide with the start of talks predicts that alpine glaciers will melt within decades and southern crops will be pushed northward, while Arctic ice is shrinking faster than projected.

That comes amid evidence from the United States and Britain that 2010 was one of the hottest years on record.